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Author: John H. Gibbons
Years ago I was fascinated by an antique that was highly prized by my great aunt. It was a songbird in a gilded cage that when wound up would move about gracefully and sing a lovely tune. It was crafted in the latter part of the 19th century, a time when many thought of the Newtonian world as mechanically replicable to a large degree. We soon found (e.g., with nuclear discoveries) that our world is exquisitely more complex than we had ever thought. Things haven’t been the same since.
When World War II ended, industrial countries capitalized on explosive advances in science and technology to create a plethora of goods and services not only for the military but also for the civilian economy. We were fast becoming as rich as Croesus. We soon found, however, that we were also sitting on a fast-rising garbage pile created by our production processes and lifestyles. John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring drew attention to the fact that the means through which we were achieving our ends of material wealth were seriously threatening the environment and human health.
In response, beginning in the 1970s, Congress enacted laws to regulate pollution and protect the environment. The S&T community began to devise ways to continue to provide material "goods" with many fewer environmental "bads." Scientists and engineers undertook major research efforts to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of the biosphere. Over the past 30 years these efforts have met with outstanding success. Our economic expansion and population growth have not seemed to cause serious environmental damage. Through innovative engineering, we have managed this progress with extremely modest net investment, to the great surprise of many naysayers.
In the process, we’ve learned a lot about the functions and frailties of natural ecosystems (e.g., fresh water cycles, weather and climate, stratospheric ozone, ocean currents, biological diversity). We are now also cognizant of the magnitude and complexity of the environmental challenges that remain as human economic activity continues apace. We ought not to underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. Like economist Paul Anderson, we need to recognize that all problems, however complicated, become even more complicated when we examine them up close.
Innovative engineering will be a key tool in helping address emerging global threats caused - or exacerbated - by human activities. Climate change, loss of species, destruction of water resources, depletion of fossil fuels, and difficulties associated with creating the infrastructure to accommodate 5 billion (or more) additional people in this century are among the challenges engineers must help solve. In all cases, we are wrestling with issues of such complexity that new ways of working and communicating will be required. And, since these are global issues, they must be addressed in a globally cooperative manner. Thomas Jefferson’s call for institutional flexibility is newly relevant: "As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered, and manners and opinions changed with the pace of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."
The fact is that our ability to cause planetary change through technology is growing faster than our ability to understand and manage the technical, social, economic, environmental, and ethical consequences of such change.
Is the sky falling? Certainly not in the near term. But consider the problem from a longer - term perspective. While it may take several hundred years to accumulate, the damage caused by a "population/technology bolide" could have greater impact on the biosphere than the asteroid that caused the K-T boundary extinction. True, Earth recovered from the K-T collision, but it took literally millions of years to do so!
I believe that we possess the ability - or could soon attain it - to foresee and to forestall many if not most of the undesired impacts of human activities. The challenge to the engineering community is three-fold. First, working in partnership with science and other intellectual domains, it must devise a way to analyze and understand the nature and dynamics of global environmental systems. Second, it must create processes, products, and infrastructures that facilitate the "good life" in a material sense (but with minimum net material flow in the economy), while assuring a healthy, diversified environment as we all work to stabilize population. Third, it must work more directly with political leaders to construct thoughtful public policies that protect the global commons as we move, in the next century or two, toward dynamic equilibrium. It will take that long if we mean to do it gracefully. If we delay action, the journey will be much more difficult, because exponentials are divergent, so what is difficult now could soon be intractable if left unattended.
The NAE symposium on Earth Systems Engineering, held as part of the Academy’s 2000 Annual Meeting, among other things served as a wake-up call to the engineering community. We have a unique and critical role to play in guiding the nonlinear and complex system of humanity-technology interaction from exponentiation to equilibrium. Papers from the symposium will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of The Bridge.